The target on their backs is roughly the size of B.J. Raji.
That’s not a problem for the Neenah Rockets.
Being the hunted suits them just fine.
Neenah has been a girls’ volleyball powerhouse in recent years and is expected to remain the area’s most dominant team this fall. The Rockets return an elite player in senior outside hitter Haley Barnes along with quality performers from a state-qualifying team like middle blocker Carley Ramich and right-side hitter/middle blocker Kauri Jensen.
Add the coaching of highly respected Bruce Moriarty to the mix and the elements are there for Neenah to make another state tournament run after advancing to the event in 2012 for the first time since 2005.
“We have high goals,” said Moriarty. “I’m sure we’re going to get everyone’s ‘A’ game, but that’s OK. That’s a good position to be in. I’d much rather have it that way than being a team that’s always having to battle from behind.”
Battling from behind has been a common problem for Neenah opponents. The Rockets enter the season with a 25-match dual-meet winning streak in the Fox Valley Association. They have gone a perfect 9-0 in FVA play the last two seasons and didn’t lose a conference set in 2012, going 27-0.
“We take a lot of pride in that, but it’s something we’ve worked for,” said Ramich. “We work hard every day in practice — there’s no slacking off. We’re obviously in a very tough conference, so we never look past anyone. Each match we play, we try and get better. We do the best we can to keep a strong mental mind set.”
The Rockets remain a nightmare for opponents to match up against, especially at the net. Ramich, Barnes and Jensen are all 6-footers and powerful hitters. Barnes was a first-team all-Wisconsin Volleyball Coaches Association selection and a unanimous all-FVA first-team choice after delivering 452 kills, 73 block kills, 284 digs and 41 aces.
“She’s just unflappable,” said Moriarty, whose team opens the season today with the eight-team Battle of the Valley tournament at Neenah. “Haley is a confident player. If she makes a mistake, it doesn’t bother her on the next play. She’s a smart player with a very high volleyball IQ. Above all, she’s a relentless competitor. No matter who is across from her, she wants to beat them.”
The only team that consistently beat Neenah (43-6) last year was Divine Savior Holy Angels. The Dashers handed the Rockets three losses — the most painful coming at the Division 1 state quarterfinals where they beat Neenah 3-1.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime type of opportunity, a great bonding experience where you learn a lot about your team,” said Barnes, who has made a verbal commitment to play Division I college volleyball at High Point University in North Carolina. “It went way too fast, that’s for sure. We’d like to get back there, but the big thing we’re trying to do is to get better every practice and keep a positive attitude all the way through. Our team chemistry is just great. We get along so well.”
Although Neenah has above-average returning talent, the Rockets aren’t a team without question marks. They have some key players to replace following the graduation of all-FVA first-team players Allie Hovie, Danica Schreck and Amy Rutten.
Rutten was the team’s setter and will be tough to replace, but Moriarty has plenty of faith in senior Bailey LaMarche and junior Haley Sedo. He plans to play both extensively in a 6-2 alignment.
“I’m really confident in Bailey and Haley. They have a lot of ability,” said Moriarty. “They’re going to do well.”
What’s the reason for Neenah’s long-term volleyball success? The continuity throughout the program might be the biggest factor, Moriarty said.
“Our coaching staff all the way down to the seventh grade is on the same page,” said Moriarty. “There are 12 of us and we teach the kids to do things the same way. I give them a lot of credit because they’re willing to do that even at the expense of taking some losses in the seventh and eighth grade. We’ve had some great classes of players that have come through and some terrific parents that have supported us.”
Like all good coaches, Moriarty adapts to his personnel, but he believes in playing an aggressive style of volleyball.
“I love to have as many different attackers as possible,” Moriarty said. “Rarely do we have just one person that we lean on. We try and attack from all parts of the net. We do things a little differently and have been running an offense the last couple years that other people don’t run, so it’s a bit unique.”
Yet it works quite well. Moriarty is starting his 16th season with the Rockets and his players believe in their coach and his winning system.
“He (Moriarty) is definitely one of my all-time favorite coaches,” said Barnes. “His passion for our team and our game really helps us succeed.”
Ramich added: “He gives respect and he also demands it in return. He’s very, very easy to to talk to, whether it’s volleyball or non-volleyball related. He’s just a good person all-around. He’s fun to play for and he really know his stuff.”
— Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or email@example.com; On Twitter @twfroberg